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In praise of an enlightened archbishop


An ever-growing majority of U.S. voters, according to a recent Pew Research Center study, view the deluge of pious discourse and professions of righteous indignation over the perfidies of postmodern society as too much to stomach. Enough is enough.

Outside the hard-line Tea Party devotees and the social conservatives terrified by President Barack Obama's "socialist tendencies," most Americans prefer the occasional injection of reason into the election mania that has yet to play out its final paroxysm. Many Roman Catholic Republicans have migrated from their co-religionists Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, with their overt religiosity, to the economic pragmatism of Mitt Romney, despite his ignorance of, or distaste for, Catholic social doctrine.

In the same month that a sizable percentage of the American electorate had reached the point of satiety on religion in the public sphere, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, announced his intention to step down.

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At first glance, these might appear as utterly unrelated items. But, on closer inspection, they represent two strikingly different options of religious presence in the public arena.

Archbishop Williams is a serious scholar, a respected poet, an author of several works, including an impressive study of Dostoyevsky, and a student of the spirituality and thought of the American Trappist Thomas Merton. Whether giving a public address, lecturing in the academy, preaching from the pulpit or directing a retreat, his approach reflects his personality: measured, thoughtful, unwilling to dilute substance to ensure immediate accessibility, and disinclined to pepper his prose with social science argot or the sappy neologisms of the intellectual dilettante.

As a consequence of his occasional flights of density, he has come in for a fair bit of criticism. His love of nuance, his indifference to the exacting minimalism of the sound bite, his irenic approach to various contesting ideologies that collide with his own views, and his resistance to fashionable trends in doctrine and spirituality all speak to his integrity as an independent thinker and as a contemplative who refuses to be hijacked by either political expediency or theological rigidity.

Precisely because he values the subtleties of interreligious dialogue in an increasingly multi-faith Britain and precisely because he will not be drawn into a wholesale condemnation of secularism or an easy demonizing of the new atheists typical of most of his episcopal peers, Archbishop Williams has been caricatured by the tabloids as a weak accommodationist and by the more benign qualities as a Hamlet-like figure paralyzed by thinking too much on events.

And so his highly intricate, if also opaque, reflections on Islamic law in English society landed him in controversy, his efforts to unite Anglican evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics with his church's mainstream in an effort to diffuse hostility around the ordination of women and gay bishops generated endless intrigue and, ultimately, proved a failure, and his critique of the acquisitive ethic that gripped the culture of the City – the seat of London's financial power – often fell on deaf ears.

But he persisted throughout his decade as the symbol of unity in the worldwide Anglican commonwealth with grace, quiet and firm determination, and civility. Unlike his predecessor, Robert Runcie, who had the bad luck to be Archbishop of Canterbury during the Margaret Thatcher years and who found himself in confrontational mode most of the time, whether over her draconian economic policies that decimated the north of England or over her insensitivity to the Argentine dead in the Falklands War, Archbishop Williams's relationship with Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron was less incendiary but no less forthright when addressing moral deficiencies in their government.

Rowan Williams preferred not to carry his religion on his surplice; he chose to bear witness to his faith in a way that was respectful of others; he invoked religion to find common ground.

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The political quagmire that is the Republication presidential nomination contest, with its constrictive and polemical religious subtext, stands in marked contrast to his enlightened approach. If only the wisdom of the Thames could flow into the Potomac – just this once.

Michael W. Higgins is an author and vice-president of Mission and Catholic Identity at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn.

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